Beyond the Limbo of the Union

We are in a state of what the late Tom Nairn called ‘constitutional catatonia’.

The current internal splits and schisms across the SNP and wider Yes movement are not just about ‘gradualists’ versus ‘fundamentalists’ (an increasingly redundant dichotomy) but about left and right. As the SNP meet in the Caird Hall in Dundee, to discuss who knows what – Fergus Ewing has become the strange figure to rally-around for many of Humza Yousaf’s critics, of all political stripes, but mostly the right-wing of the Scottish nationalist movement and their newly-acquired comrades in the Unionist community. Strange bedfellows for strange times. The writer Paul Kavanagh has caused outrage by branding Mr Ewing a Tory, and saying the only thing that separates him from “yer actual Tories” was his belief in Scottish independence. But this is just plainly true. It’s just a simple fact.

The dictum ‘my enemies enemy is my friend’ leads you almost always to some dark places and here we have a horde of reactionary forces rallying around Fergus Ewing – not out of support for his policies – nor for love of his mother – but out of a virulent hatred of the Greens and everything they stand for. This is the opposite of the Sins of your Father – instead Ewing’s own politics are being whitewashed by the memory of his mother.


Labour’s Brian Wilson has written in The Scotsman: “Perhaps this offers an opportunity for Mr Yousaf to press the pause button and respect the possibility that Fergus is right and the policies are wrong.” What, all the policies? Yes, the suggestion is that a political party should pivot to reject all of the policies that one MSP can’t thole. One single outlier MSP – who just happens to share 99% of the ideology of the writer and his movement – should be used to abandon a legislative programme.

This is daft. It’s naked Unionist opportunism and it won’t get far, other than to stir the masses around the fetid alliances of conservative forces coalesced across the parties.

But as much in this – the apparent binaries we are presented with are not what they seem.

The choice is not between ‘Continuity SNP’ and some other force or party of independence. The choice isn’t ‘Yousaf or Salmond’ because neither is credible. Nor is it ‘Ewing or Slater’ as some commentators would love to frame it. Nor is it ‘gradualist’ or ‘fundamental’ because there are no apparent routes for a sudden transformative rise to independence. Nor is their a real dichotomy between critical appraisal of Sturgeon’s leadership and the fact that it was the UK that built a roadblock to democracy. That’s not Sturgeon’s fault. Us independence supporters were naive enough to think this was a democracy we were living in.

To suggest that the alternative parties – such as there are – have no credibility – strategy or likelihood of success – is not to strap your self to the failed record of the SNP leadership – it is simply to state a fact. The reality is the independence movement needs to be re-built from the ground up, having learnt some very harsh lessons from the past decade. What are those lessons?

One of the first might be – as we are discovering this week – that the left-right spectrum still counts – now more than ever – as the ‘cost of living crisis’ rolls on and social inequality is brutally amplified. Building a movement – and a case for independence – relies on arguing for how a new nation would transform Scottish society and do so in a way that responds to the economic crisis we see unfolding around us. ‘Britain is for the rich, Scotland can be ours’ used to be the slogan, and it should be again. Covering up for the nationalist right, or making alliances between Tories, Unionists and ‘populists’ does none of this.

The second is that – despite the waves of hostility raining down on the greens – and anyone with the temerity to suggest we might actually, you know, do something, the ecological crisis in all its many forms, isn’t just going away. It’s a darkly ironic version of the ‘too wee, too poor, too stupid’ trope that Scotland shouldn’t create it’s own climate justice strategies – or god forbid it’s own recycling scheme. This is not to suggest that the Scottish Greens haven’t made mistakes – they really really have – but much of the hostility directed at them has little or nothing to do with policy or policy error – it is part of a wider generational and ideological resistance to change.

Third, the SNP have failed to change Scotland in key areas, often areas where they have fully devolved powers. This could be used as a template for a new movement and a new outlook, if we ask ourselves: where are the areas where nothing has happened and why? This could be used as the outline of a new movement. If we take housing, drugs policy and land ownership it’s a track record of ongoing failure. The failure is not just of the SNPs but the political class and its institutions and structures. It feels like political parties not just won’t but can’t effect change. Any political party or movement that is going to tackle land-lordism can’t come from within a rentier class; any political party or movement that wants to have deep solidarity and empathy with people suffering from addiction and deprivation has to have some affinity with and connection to those people; and any political party or movement that genuinely wants to confront Scotland’s land ownership crisis has to have the guts and drive and motivation to confront landed power. While we can bleat that the crisis in rural Scotland is the fault of the ‘terrible metropolitan greens’ i t is really, truly, because the entirety of rural Scotland has been designed as – and run as – a playpark for Britain’s very wealthiest people.

Fourth, beware the shifting sands of politics. Devolution is under sustained attack by the British state in ways that would have been inconceivable only a few years ago. But now we have to defend the modest gains of the devolution settlement, even as it is proving to be a set of relations and powers that are totally inadequate. Any pro-independent Scottish government has to ‘prove itself’ as competent within the strictures of a settlement that is politically and economically insufficient. That’s a double-bind but one that needs confronted. It’s not a positive option for independence to abandon devolution.

Fifth and related, if the British state has been agitated by representatives from Scotland making connections and holding talks with foreign countries, that’s exactly what we should be doing much more of. On all levels the soft-power of cultural exchange, technical communication and political accords should be ramped up as a process of disengagement, definition and assertion.

All of these things are difficult but possible. All of them will require a radical change of how we operate, but all are essential to bring forward the transformative powers we need to be drawing on to effect real change.



Comments (21)

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  1. Cathie Lloyd says:

    We seem to need a roadmap when the road is constantly being re-routed and dug up! Its something of a fixation when we really need scenarios which we can refine as circumstances shift. To control the direction what we really need is to build support for independence. I think you’re on the right track (sorry about this travelling metaphor will try to leave it behind!). Somehow we need to move beyond the safety net of having a plan and a date. Many other campaigns operate like that it doesnt mean that we lack determination.

    I’d add to your list of what needs to be done, that we need to understand how vital it is to work up alliances for independence. Our new Scotland will need to develop a shared understanding about the kind of society we want to be. Some of this can be what we dont want. We also need to make common ground with those who do genuinely represent the values the majority hold dear.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Cathie Lloyd, on a course on using systems thinking to tackle climate and biodiversity crises, we were given this article to analyse. I found it a difficult read, but it does suggest why focusing on personality and party politics will get us nowhere:

  2. Colin Dunn says:

    “But now we have to defend the modest gains if the devolution settlement, even as it is proving to be a set of relations and powers that are totally inadequate.”

    Typo? This doesn’t seem to make sense. Should the “if the devolution settlement” be an ‘of’?

    1. Yes/thanks/oops/sorry/fixed

  3. Alice says:

    An excellent piece. I listened to Humza give forth to the SNP masses of which at the moment, I am one. It’s all going to come up Indy roses once again very soon according to Humza ….The thing is there is still the many thorns of the ambulance service which didn’t get a mention.

    Humza said in 2019 that folk might not bother to dial 999 for an ambulance ….still the same consideration in 2023. My sister waited last week for an ambulance called by an out of hours doctor from 6pm until 6 am the next day. She was in severe pain and needed hospital attention.

    She would have got a taxi if she could have been able to walk but due to the level of pain she was unable to do so….During the night her telephone rang every hour keeping her and her partner awake all night. This seemingly is the system.

    I can’t forgive the SNP for the state of the ambulance service ….this has been going on for years….Leonard Cohen’s song ‘Everybody Knows’ (at least in the higher echelons of the SNP )sums it up very neatly.

  4. Michelle Shortt says:

    It is possible to agree with Ewing on some things and vehemently disagree with him on other issues. It is possible to agree with Anas Sarwar on some things and vehemently disagree on others. It is possible to agree with Douglas Ross on some things and vehemently disagree on others.
    And the list goes on. I really don’t understand why we are so fixated on labelling people and pigeon-holing them into fixed boxes.

    The real problem for we independence supporters is that there appears to be few of the SNP diehards (in fact some of the SNP elected politicians seem better able to realise that their parties policies are not working for large swathes of Scotland) who can recognise that providing quality public services that work for everyone all across Scotland is the first job of government. Independence will happen only when it can be shown to be the ‘will of Scotland’. Cross party, left/right/centrists are all part of making that ‘will’ become reality. The SNP and Greens appear to have forgotten that. At present both parties are like the unionist parties more interested in power for themselves than for us.

  5. John says:

    While not disagreeing with comments on performance of Holyrood to tackle the real social problems in Scottish society I would add that this has become more difficult due to Westminster policies which antagonise and some cases actually cause these problems.
    The article also highlights how Westminster government has become more aggressive and far more intervenionist in approach to Holyrood to try and undermine primarily SNP and in doing so hopefully also undermine support for independence. In reality Westminster is actually undermining devolution settlement and unfortunately I do not see this policy changing if Labour take power after next election especially if SNP lose some support as well.
    This will be political background to the actions proposed in this article despite whatever Gordon Brown promises about increased devolved powers.

  6. Duncan Sutherland says:

    Neither SNP careerists and culture warriors nor their wine-bar revolutionary coalition colleagues in the pile of politically correct mediocrity and ineptitude that constitutes the Scottish Government these days have even the slightest possibility of ending the state of limbo of which you complain, as the Scottish electorate has not failed to notice.

    What has become of the devolution experiment is a sad sight indeed. The attempt to use it to obtain independence, which is, of course, a purpose for which it was not designed, has failed and failed comprehensively. What we are left with is the wreckage of a system which is being abused by career politicians who have a vested interest not in promoting democracy but in persisting in defying the will of the people of Scotland as expressed in the independence referendum of 2014.

    Alongside this wreckage sits the related wreck of the independence movement, much of which fails to appreciate having votes for independence in Scottish Parliament elections used to wage a culture war which very many independence supporters clearly do not support.

    The independence movement cannot move forward because it has come as far as it can. Failure to realize this is what is responsible for the state of limbo. There is only one way to end it. It is staring you in the face.

    1. Jake Solo says:


      It’s the step this SNP will never, ever take. No matter the number of seats or votes.

      The SNP won’t give us a plan worth voting for in case we vote for it. Any Indy plan worth voting for is one that defies WM, denies WM legitimacy and breaks UK law.

      I don’t know why they even give a shit about WM and the UK govt now. The Supreme Court decision rendered WM and the UK state irrelevant to the struggle for Indy.

      Independence will be made in Scotland, not London, indeed must be made in Scotland. It’s called self determination. Emphasis on self. Anyone still ascribing any role or influence to WM or the UK is a fool or a traitor.

      WM/UK only become relevant again if/when they come up and try and take it back.

      1. Alan C says:

        Can someone more savy than me, explain why we couldn’t go down the Norwegian route? It appears they just put two fingers up and did it.

        1. Alan S says:

          That’s what happened in Massachusetts. All of Massachusetts, aside from Boston, was independent before the first shots of the American Revolution were fired in Lexington and Concord in April 1775. The American Revolution started as a counter-revolution when the British attempted to reassert their authority by force over a state where the people had already peacefully taken their independence. However, the events of 1774 were only possible because the citizens of Massachusetts were overwhelming opposed to British authority.

    2. John says:

      The Scottish government did accept the will of the people post 2014. If it had not it would have stated it had won and declare that Scotland was an independent nation. I may have missed something but I am pretty sure this did not happen unless you know something I don’t.
      The SNP is a party whose primary aim is the establishment of an independent Scotland and even though they accepted the 2014 result in a democracy they were still perfectly entitled to pursue independence as a legitamite aim although I do realise some non democrats, such as yourself by the look of your post, think that that they should not be allowed to do this. If the Scottish electorate thought, as you do, they would not have voted in successive Holyrood parliaments with majorities who openly supported independence they would have voted for parties opposed to independence. (please note that support for independence also continues to outstrip support for SNP.) The voters in Scotland were free to vote for a variety of parties opposing independence in post 2014 elections. I should also remind you that these parliaments were voted in by PR as opposed to the FPTP system which gives us a Westminster government that rarely has a level of electoral support to achieve a majority by PR, yet which has total power to implement policies opposed by majority of electorate a ballot box.. I may also add that the Conservative Party has won 8 out of last 11 Westminster elections without ever being largest party in Scotland and that this democratic deficit continues to be a driver for independence in Scotland
      I accept you obviously don’t support the policies of current government, but I am afraid using such meaningless, populist terminology such as wine bar politicians is nothing undermines the seriousness of your post. As for careerist politicians while I have some sympathy with this point of view I think this would be best addressed to members, primarily of opposition, who are returned to Holyrood election after election via the list vote having failed to be elected in the constituency vote and often rise to senior positions in their party via this route.
      Lastly I would suggest if you wish to influence anyone you could start by using some rational arguments rather than resorting to what was little more than abuse.

      1. Niemand says:

        But there is a legitimate question here in relation to the (incontrovertible) right to do something (continue to pursue independence, especially via the SNP) and whether it is a good idea to do so. Mike describes well the limbo state and its dire consequences but Duncan is pointing out that that limbo state is actually partly, if not wholly, caused by the continued clamour for independence as the top priority for the country and thus support for the SNP, even when there is and has been for a very long time, no substantial majority support for it (or any majority at all) and a serious lack of competence in the one political vehicle that can deliver it (or so it seems). Shouting UDI! and the like is classic man yelling at cloud stuff.

        I support independence but that support does not come at any cost and there is a good argument that we are at a point where having it as the be all and end all is actually harming the country because little is being done to deal with some of the serious issues it faces. Always falling back on the argument that ‘we can’t’ as our hands are tied by WM is false, since much could be done by those in Holyrood but isn’t due to a failing party in power who are the only serious nationalists in town who will always fall back on this false argument (and even deliberately, knowingly, setting up conflict with WM for political ends – it has, for example, been known all along that both the self ID legislation and the DRS scheme conflicted with UK-wide legislation but this was ignored so the SNP could play victim yet again; we do see through this stuff, people are not stupid).

        In any well-functioning devolved democracy the SNP should be voted out of power since, to be generous, they have run out of steam on all fronts (including independence). That is what Duncan means about ‘staring you in the face’. What the independence movement needs is a serious nationalist challenge to the SNP or a complete re-building of it whilst out of power, because the current party has, for now, blown it, are key players in the ‘limbo’ and are harming the country.

        1. John says:

          I do not agree with your assessment of GR & DRS especially the latter where Westminster has changed mind & rules and vested interests and opposition have jumped onboard to undermine Scottish government.
          I agree that we are in limbo re independence with an apparent 50/50 split but demographics do show increasing support in younger people so this is not going away. The primary reason we are in limbo is because Westminster (primarily voted in by electorate outside Scotland) have rejected will of Holyrood (voted in by Scottish electorate) to hold another independence referendum. I think that if another independence referendum was lost this would temporarily put issue on back burner. This has also all been inflamed by Brexit (remember Better Together vow) where Scotland has had a Hard Brexit imposed on it against wishes of majority of electorate while Northern Ireland gets a bespoke agreement.
          I have always been open to an a devolution max type solution that gave Full Fiscal Autonomy to Scotland along with ability to negotiate a separate deal with EU. Westminster will not tolerate anything like this so only solution I see is to get independence support to a level of 60%, hold a referendum without Westminster support but with international recognition and get a mandate to negotiate with Westminster along with a deal and support from EU.
          Lastly and I reiterate this if the electorate in Scotland do want an independent Scotland they will stop voting for parties that promote it. That is how you operate in a democracy and so far parties supporting independence have been returned as a majority in Holyrood since 2014. I again add that in 3 Westminster elections since 2014 the Tories have come a poor second in Scotland coming nowhere near being largest party and yet we are told to always defer to Westminster.

          1. John says:

            Typo in last paragraph – it should obviously state that if electorate do not want an independent Scotland or another independence referendum they will vote for parties that do not have these among their main policies and parliament at Holyrood would reflect this.

  7. Jake Solo says:

    There is no nationalist right. That’s utter garbage that just makes you feel better about your own doubt, hypocrisy and failure.

    1. There is no nationalist right? How is that even possible?

    2. John says:

      The SNP is by its very nature a politically broad movement which was moved significantly to left of political spectrum post 1979 by Alex Salmond to try and win more seats in central belt.
      I have spoken to quite a few SNP supporters with right wing views.

  8. mark leslie edwards says:

    Until these chancers get themselves out of NATO’s pocket I am wasting no more time on them.

  9. mark leslie edwards says:

    PS. I’m sure I’m not the first person to have thought of this but if you want to make a difference what I would do is withdraw all your money from the bank & keep it in your huis, that way there’s no way they can invest in furthering their morally vacuous shenanigans.

  10. Me Bungo Pony says:

    Drugs policy is a reserved matter. Hence the Scottish Govt having to ask for, and being denied, permission to open safe zones for addicts that have proven useful throughout the world. Don’t know why the Scottish Govt don’t point this out more on that particular issue.

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